Evolution of a Vanguard

Crushing on Swoon in Hudson

Photography by Jennifer May

It helped that both Bachinsky Gimmel
and Gimmel were a culinary match in
heaven. “I’m salty and she’s sweet,” Gimmel
says with a grin, “so we were able to put
together a solid back of house package.”

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Swooners: co-owners and life collaborators Jeff Gimmel and wife Nina Bachinsky Gimmel

A decade ago, Hudson was not the culinary hot spot and quaint shopping destination it is today. There was a smattering of high-end antique stores but not much else. Warren Street was lined with dealers of a different kind, and the only decent place to eat in town was a neighborhood burger joint and watering hole called the Red Dot that is still open on Warren Street. As Jeff Gimmel—chef and owner with his wife, Nina Bachinsky Gimmel, of the pioneering Hudson restaurant Swoon Kitchenbar recalls—“Even after living in New York City for a decade, it was intimidating up here. Ten years ago, crack was king. You had to walk the gauntlet just to go to the Red Dot.”

Gimmel and Bachinsky Gimmel didn’t realize when they opened Swoon in 2004 that they would become pioneers of what would soon become a growing trend of chefs decamping upstate to open notable restaurants. After a decade in the ’90s of paying their dues in some of New York City’s most celebrated kitchens—Gimmel as executive chef at Midtown power-lunch institution Michael’s and Bachinsky Gimmel working in the pastry departments at Union Square Café, Le Bernardin and Cafe M at the Stanhope Hotel—they were burnt out and ready for change. “We just wanted to go sit on the beach,” Gimmel recalls, so they took off for the small island of Nantucket and ran a catering business out of the back of a wine and cheese shop. With a couple of months to kill during the winter of 2000, the couple decided to go to Hudson, where Bachinsky Gimmel’s artist parents had a studio, to learn how to make cheese.

“We called Old Chatham [the award-winning cheesemaking operation of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company] out of the blue,” Gimmel recalls, “and asked if we could work there for a couple of months, which turned out to be great timing because they needed extra help for the holiday rush. We packed up our stuff and threw a mattress on the floor of Nina’s parents’ studio. Old Chatham was a small operation at the time, so it was very hands on and we got to learn about all aspects of the process: making the cheese, molding it, turning the wheels, packaging and shipping.” This curiosity about the process of making food and getting to know farmers would shape their philosophy at their yet-to-be-realized restaurant, Swoon Kitchenbar.

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ESTABLISHING HUDSON VALLEY ROOTS

Chefs, by nature, can’t be idle nor beach bums for very long. After a couple more seasons on Nantucket, the couple became fed up with seasonal island life, plus Bachinsky Gimmel wanted to go back to school. So they moved to the Woodstock-Saugerties area in 2002 while Bachinsky Gimmel earned a BFA at Bard. One of the first places Gimmel worked in early 2003 was as a sous chef at the then recently opened Red Onion in Saugerties, cementing a friendship with chef and owner Kevin Katz that continues to this day.

“It was a great experience in so many ways,” Gimmel says. “It made me understand who the client base was up here and drove home the point that to cook what I wanted, I’d have to open up my own place.” It helped that Bachinsky Gimmel and Gimmel were a culinary match in heaven. “I’m salty and she’s sweet,” Gimmel says with a grin, “so we were able to put together a solid back of house package.”

After looking in Tivoli and Rhinebeck, they decided on Hudson, and found their current spot in a space that formerly housed a breakfast and lunch eatery. Maybe it had to do with the fact that the town had been settled by whaling captains from Nantucket, an interesting maritime connection they discovered later. With some help from their respective families, the two signed a lease in February 2004 and, after renovating the space, swiftly opened that May. This year Swoon will celebrate their 11th year of being in business. No small feat for a restaurant in the Hudson Valley.

Opening a restaurant in Hudson was a bold move a decade ago. “There wasn’t much in town. A few places had opened, then closed,” Gimmel recalls. “But it had enough essential ingredients: There were weekenders. Beautiful architecture. Cool bohemian antique dealers and artists who may not have been wealthy, but they appreciated the finer things.” Seeing the potential of a location while understanding your existing customer base is a critical factor that many misjudge when opening a restaurant, especially outside a major city. So is adaptability.

“Our original plan for Swoon was modeled on Gramercy Tavern [in Manhattan], with a tavern menu at the bar and a more sophisticated tasting menu in the back,” Gimmel says. In the beginning, they closed off the back of the restaurant with a curtain while waiting for tables and chairs that would sport white tablecloths, and they opened the front with a bar menu. “That first menu had crab cakes, roasted poussin, one pasta dish and a skirt steak with mashed potato and grilled onions, which is the only original item we’ve kept,” Gimmel says. “But in spite of this being our bar menu, guests thought it was really fancy and pricey, even though our entrées were only priced in the mid-teens.” Gimmel and Bachinsky Gimmel’s approach to sourcing and the level of technique they brought to even humble dishes were ahead of their time, elevating comfort food to a more refined category, which made their dishes seem more urbane than they really were. That included desserts. Swoon was one of the few restaurants in the Hudson Valley at that time baking their own bread and making seasonally inspired desserts and pastry in-house.

As Serge Madikians, who cooked there briefly before opening Serevan in Amenia recalls, “Nina brought a level of artistry and sophistication in flavor and plating combinations I had not seen upstate before. She would take a tray of raspberries from Montgomery Place Orchards and fours hours later it was on a plate as a sorbet, a tart and a tuile. It was mesmerizing.”

Although they realized pretty quickly their initial concept for the menu would have to be downscaled after getting a better feel for their customers’ tastes, they still maintained a level of integrity that afforded them a certain attentiveness to ingredients as well as execution. Their style of cooking, which layered complex flavors built around the freshness of locally farmed fare on the plate, would become Swoon’s signature.

This simple yet refined approach that elevated vegetables to center stage is something Gimmel first learned from chef Mark May, who had opened his own bistro on the Upper East Side called May We, where Gimmel cooked for a couple of years in the early ’90s.

“May was the first chef who introduced me to solid French techniques, but in a Mediterranean style using olive oil instead of creambased sauces. It was about really highlighting vegetables,” Gimmel says. As an example, he remembers one dish in particular, ratatouille: “They were militant about it. Each group of vegetables went in the oven at separate times and cooked very slowly. Then we strained off the cooking liquid, reduced it and pureed that with roasted garlic and pepper, which was folded back into the vegetables with herbs. The liquid was so good we could sometimes serve the vegetables for family meal and use the sauce for service. It opened my eyes to the importance of thinking through every step and respecting the ingredients in order to coax the best flavor and texture.” A lesson no doubt that has kept Swoon rated as one of America’s Top Restaurants by Zagat and earned Gimmel a James Beard nomination for Best Chef Northeast in 2012.

The couple’s dedication to sourcing locally means their menu changes daily. “We don’t change everything, but a little bit changes every day, and week to week it changes more,” Gimmel says. Back in 2004 when they first opened, the farm-to-plate concept had not yet caught fire in the area, so it definitely generated some buzz among the early locavore crowd, me included. Back then, you didn’t have the wealth of farmers’ markets nor enterprising young farmers knocking on the chef ’s back door wanting to sell them unusual heirlooms. If you wanted locally grown food, you had to really seek it out.

“First Nina and I drove around in an old Volvo, then I bought a crappy old minivan and we would make this big loop down 9G and back up 9 on Thursdays, stopping at Migliorelli Farm, Northwind Farms and Montgomery Place Orchards,” says Gimmel. “There weren’t that many farms, just a few big family operations that had been run for generations.” Although at that time New York City chefs got most of the attention for sourcing locally, visiting the actual places where food was raised or grown and getting to know the farmers was a very different, and by far richer, experience than shopping at the Greenmarket. “You realize these are real farms not just stands at the market. You walk around the fields with them. You see their kids running around. You hear about their lives and about their woes,” Gimmel says.

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THE KIDS ARE COMING UP FROM BEHIND

As most readers of this magazine know, the Hudson Valley, at least for some, has been in the midst of a decade long revival, especially, and maybe most conspicuously, in towns like Hudson. While a tasting menu, which tends to be a signifier of fine dining and higher prices, would have been met with derision just a few short years ago, Hudson now has two restaurants—the Crimson Sparrow and Fish & Game—serving hyper-locally sourced tasting menus that change weekly, with prices above $80. For Gimmel, this progression is a reason to celebrate.

“We were the first ones here who cared about sourcing and quality, but I think it’s fantastic that the climate has evolved to the point where two Hudson restaurants can open and only offer tasting menus. There is population density now that can support higher-caliber places like these.” In spite of having laid the groundwork with Swoon and by founding Ramp Fest, held annually at the Basilica Hudson and which just celebrated its fifth year in May, to showcase the chefs and restaurants in the area, Gimmel doesn’t take as much credit as maybe he should. Instead, he points to the many people and organizations who have worked hard to make the Hudson Valley the culinary destination it has become today.

The downside of longevity for a groundbreaking restaurant is going from being on the vanguard to, over the course of a decade, becoming the old guard, so when I ask Gimmel if he’d consider introducing a tasting menu now that the town is open to it, he says, “We don’t want to be a special occasion fine dining place. We are happy to have fallen into the role of neighborhood brasserie. We’ve been fortunate to have regulars who have been eating with us since we opened. I don’t want them coming in and going: ‘Wait a minute, where am I? This isn’t the right food, this doesn’t match, it doesn’t make sense here.’” Staying current without rocking the boat is a delicate balancing act.

“Learning how to handle the evolution of a restaurant is something I learned from my conversations with Michael McCarty when I was at his restaurant. It was a valuable lesson that has stuck with me,” Gimmel insists. He recalls telling Michael that the only way he would take the job is if he could update the menu, but “[Michael] had a very successful restaurant with an extremely high-end clientele. He [knew he] couldn’t have one of his regulars walk in the next day and say: ‘Wait this isn’t the restaurant I’ve gone to for lunch every day.’ He wanted them to say: ‘Wow, this is the best food I’ve ever had here. I don’t know what’s different, but something is and I really like it,’” Jeff says. “A lot of high-end restaurants, even in the late ’80s, did not have composed dishes. It was a protein with sauce on top at six o’clock with one starch and vegetable medley plated in that hotel formula. We forget how far we’ve come,” Gimmel explains. “Evolution takes time.”

Gimmel encourages his own chefs to follow a philosophy that honors the past while moving the needle progressively forward. “When I bring on new people, I talk about the history and tradition of what we’ve done, so the evolution stays within who we are and what we are doing, but it doesn’t mean we stay the same,” Gimmel says. “The last thing I want is for someone to say this place used to be modern eight years ago.”

Part of what keeps Gimmel current and inspired is the people he has hired over the years. Many like Serge Madikians of Serevan have gone on to open their own restaurants, including Jamie Parry who has Another Fork in the Road in Milan and Bjorn Somlo with Nudel in Lenox. “I try to hire people who are passionate about what they are doing. Even though I’m not on the line every day, having good conversations about food with people who are passionate is one of the great things that still happens here on a day-to-day basis. That’s what keeps us happy and evolving.”

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Every year brings a different challenge.
It’s not New York City where you can
pack them in during the week,
so everything helps from a revenue and
exposure standpoint when you can feed
people and get them to know about you.

CREATIVE POPULISM

Swoon’s menu, still printed daily, has grown from one pasta and six or seven appetizers and entrées to three pastas, one risotto, seven to eight additional entrées and at least twelve appetizers, which is about all they can handle to maintain quality and given the size of their kitchen. Five years ago, Swoon joined the “Meatless Mondays” effort, offering a fourcourse tasting menu for less than $30, which has been a big success. Gimmel adds, “It’s been great for the kitchen since it forces them to come up with an entirely new menu each week.”

Another hit has been their “Burger Thursdays,” which they started two years ago. It was an ingenious solution, giving people who had been asking for a burger since they opened— and a damn fine one, too, made from Kinderhook Farm’s blend and served with cafeteria-inspired tater tots the way you wished they tasted when you were in school—without putting it on the regular menu. Chuckling, Gimmel recalls someone who hectored him the first year they opened: “It was a busy night, and this older guy came back and stood in the doorway of the kitchen where we were cooking and barks: ‘Hey, are you the owner here? Let me tell you something, you’re never gonna last if you don’t put a burger on the menu!’” Given Gimmel’s stubborn streak, that man unwittingly ensured such an addition was never going to happen.

Along with these weekly events, part of Gimmel’s long-term strategy has meant diversifying. “Even being here 11 years, this is the restaurant business. Every year brings a different challenge.

It’s not New York City where you can pack them in during the week. So everything helps from a revenue and exposure standpoint when you can feed people and get them to know about you,” he says. Four years ago, capitalizing on the upstate wedding boom, they started doing more off-site catering. Two years ago, they rented the upstairs above the restaurant. “We were getting requests for rehearsal dinner space and didn’t want to close the restaurant on a Friday night and alienate our regular clientele, so having a space for private events made sense. We eventually moved the pastry kitchen upstairs, too, so now they have their own place. We’ll be planning more events here soon.” It’s a lovely and airy space with old wooden floors and Bachinsky Gimmel’s photographs lining the walls, and as of June, the space will be christened “Upstairs” and will be a cocktail lounge with a plentiful raw bar stocked with North Atlantic oysters and an assortment of sashimi and crudo.

Gimmel is clearly not one to sit around twiddling his thumbs. “I enjoy new projects and doing new things. I can’t sit still for too long,” he says. Seeking a new challenge is surely what led him and Bachinsky Gimmel to open a new place called Swooner last year in Stonington, Connecticut, overlooking the harbor in what used to be their former vacation spot. He had spent his summers growing up in Matunuck, Rhode Island, where he learned to fish, crab and clam. He went to culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Providence and his first job was in Newport. Developing a more seafood-centered cuisine seemed like the perfect opportunity to get back to his roots, so when the owner of the Stonington Inn, who also owned the restaurant, asked the couple to take over the lease, they said yes with the owner remaining as the primary investor. After extensive renovations including commissioning Bachinsky Gimmel’s parents to paint beautiful murals of underwater life, the short-lived Swooner opened its doors, only to abruptly close several months later. Reluctant to talk about it, Gimmel attributed it to a bad partnership.

Perhaps the lesson he had learned at Michael’s just didn’t apply to a less adventurous harbor town. Swooner had replaced a longtime seafood place that probably served passable food but was predictable and reliable for the town’s regulars. Gimmel shared a telling insight in one of our earlier conversations when I asked him why he hadn’t decided to open a place in Rhode Island instead of Hudson. “It’s a difficult climate because in spite of the wealth, there’s not much good food there, so it’s much harder to make people understand what you’re doing. Their attitude is: I want a $6 pinot grigio and you better fill it up to the rim. And what do you mean you don’t have a Caesar salad on the menu? They just want things the way they are used to,” he says, which sounds eerily like some of the Yelp reviews Swooner got soon after opening.

He also mentioned another hard-earned lesson that he won’t soon forget: “I realized, I just like certain places as a vacation spot. When you lose your vacation spot because you think, ‘Hey, this is cool, I can live and work here,’ then it’s not a vacation spot anymore. You’re like, here I am, it’s beautiful, but I’m working 70 hours a week. This sucks!’” It’s safe to say, he won’t be ruining anymore of his vacation spots, but I for one am looking forward to where he and Bachinsky Gimmel set sail to next.

Swoon Kitchenbar
340 Warren St., Hudson
518.822.8938
swoonkitchenbar.com

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